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“We all owe something to Kertész,” photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said. Indeed, Hungarian André Kertész (1894–1985) pioneered photographic composition, the photo essay, photojournalism, art photography and the “lyrical” street photograph. His work synthesized feeling with observation, and naive spontaneity with a canny understanding of composition.

Kertész was born Kertész Andor into Budapest’s Jewish middle class, the son of a bookseller who expected him to grow into a stockbroker. Instead Kertész taught himself to use a camera, making his first picture in 1912 and, as a soldier during World War I, schlepping glass plates that would become his first published pictures over the front lines. In 1925, at age 30, Kertész struck out for Paris, the birthplace of photography, where he changed his name from Andor, bought his first 35mm Leica and made friends with the dadaists. (The story goes that one dadaist dubbed him “Brother Seeing Eye” in reference to a medieval monastery where all of the monks, but one, were blind.)

Speaking little French, he wandered the streets, recording an enchanted, bizarre, comical, mysterious city that seemed to exist between heartbeats. “Kertész was living in Paris at just the right time, and knew many of the artists, but his French was imperfect—later his English was also—so he communicated through his pictures,” says Sandra Phillips, curator emerita of photography at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. “He was something of a naïf—a very sophisticated one—and that is part of his work.”

Kertész focused on creating form and geometry through composition and contrast (picture a noon sun cross-hatching the ground through the slats of park chairs). Shooting from unorthodox vantage points, high above his subjects, he observed Paris from clock towers and rooftops while experimenting with equipment.

  • Words:
    Shonquis Moreno
  • Photography:
    ©Estate of André Kertész/Higher Pictures

“He was something of a naïf—a very sophisticated one—and that is part of his work.”

In 1927, to shoot from the top of a staircase in Montmartre, Kertész detached a component from his camera’s lens assembly, flattening the scene into something akin to a still life, and generating pattern and form not through the framing of objects but through a confluence of light and shadow.

For a pioneer of “spontaneous” photography, Kertész was also a master of the still life. And though one is found and the other made, through his lens, the two have a lot in common: Each image is charged with its own latent energy as if the scene has not been frozen, but clarified; life is still being lived in or around it. His 1926 Satiric Dancer, depicting a woman’s body as a series of triangles, transfers the light, shadow and found geometries of his street photography onto the human body. It turns the human into a still life, making something familiar, unfamiliar and letting us see it anew.

He illuminated The Fork (1928) under a harsh light to cast a grill of shadows through its tines, making the image stark and poetic at the same time: Kertész reveals that the fork is an object of beauty—without dissipating any of its essential forkness. Kertész also made essential portraits of friends including the writer Colette, filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and painter Piet Mondrian, who he represented in Mondrian’s Glasses and Pipe (1926) in which two pairs of eyeglasses, a pipe and a bowl managed to portray not just the painter, but his painting too.

In 1927, Kertész became the first photographer in the world to be given a solo exhibition and, for 11 years between the wars, he was one of Europe’s most influential shooters. But the descent into World War II and the emergence of New York as a creative mecca pushed and pulled Kertész to the United States in 1936 where he fell, reluctantly, into obscurity. It was shows in 1946 at the Art Institute of Chicago and in 1964 New York’s Museum of Modern Art respectively that reprised his success, and by the mid-1970s, his work was being sought by galleries around the globe.

Overlooked in midlife, Kertész—who worked prolifically until his death at 91—was later acknowledged by some as the single greatest photographer of the 20th century and, by everyone else, as one of the greatest. “Everybody can look, but they don’t necessarily see,” he once said. But when Kertész said “see,” he really meant “feel.” American writer Susan Sontag, famous for her critical essay “On Photography,” described Kertész’ work as “a wing of pathos.” Henri Cartier-Bresson would have understood: “Each time Andre Kertész’s shutter clicks,” he said, “I feel his heart beating.”

  • Words:
    Shonquis Moreno
  • Photography:
    ©Estate of André Kertész/Higher Pictures
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